When most people hear the term White House, they think of the presidential home in Washington. This article is about a White House much younger than the building to house every U.S president since 1800. This is the story of the, as of 2016, 60 year old White House in Shivpuri. Some members of my family have lived long enough to call a 60 year old building the “New White House” because it wasn’t even my family’s first home in Shivpuri. But it was and is the first place I can tie a million childhood memories to, it is my safe haven, happy place and in a word, home.
It’s funny, the things that stay engrained in one’s memories years after the event. In spite of my lacking spatial sense of imagination, I remember moments of my own first move in Switzerland. There too the new Haksar home was built from the ground up and it really is the little things that are remembered a decade later: the first Diwali at the construction site after the land belonged to us, the tiny flickering flame like a predecessor to many roaring fires in the past decade of winters. Anyway the point is sparks of recollection, like the only thing Mom has told me about the “Old White House” being how she, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi would relish rain water getting clogged up in a corner of the old courtyard, so they could splash about in glee as children do.
Their joyous entertainment from something as simple as dancing around a blocked drain inspired Nani’s dream of a home with a swimming pool. Sixty years later, as I sit writing this in the “link” of the L-shaped wing of our beautiful White House, I look out upon that curved swimming pool, baby-proofed this winter to keep our energetic Little Miss Gayatri from harm. To Nani reminiscing, the scrapes and cuts experienced by Mom, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi against the pool’s rough walls may feel like yesterday. They once learned to swim in that pool before it was even tiled and now Gayatri’s turn has come so many years later.
There is talk now of decreasing the depth of the swimming pool at some point, to conserve water. Whatever change may come about to the physical shape of the pool, nothing can take away the depth of the memories tied to it. All the cousins twirling around the stone edging of the pool to Shania Twain and the Men In Black theme tune, a fashion show for Nana’s 80th birthday sixteen years ago. The cringe-worthy water ballet with then-gap girl Kim that same night, memories immortalized in home videos and our hearts.
This town has faced many water shortages over the years, a complete drought in 2002 even killed the palm trees lining our red-gravel driveway which were planted by Mom, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi as children. The garden once even boasted rose bushes as a gift from Nani’s father, subsequently removed when monkeys attacked the fresh buds and posed a threat with their numbers. I myself have seen monkeys taking drinks from the pool in summer and munching on the fruit from the trees, formerly peach and now guava, the primates clearly aren’t fussy.
Through their impressive fight for survival, the gardens surrounding the White House have been one of the most inspirational factors to my writing for years. One of my very first non-fiction articles was an observation of an old willow tree nearby. Some of the trees in these gardens are as old as the house itself, gifts from my great-grandparents. The entire concept of the White House was structured around a grove of trees sixty years ago, so our home sits surrounded by green on all sides. The abundance of space and light is part of what makes it such a peaceful and inviting place.
In the big cities I am familiar with in India, Delhi and Bombay, I always find myself stressed by the noise and the traffic, so much less civilized than what I’m used to in Switzerland. The walk to the Bombay physio centre, technically no further distance-wise than my Swiss physiotherapist, was a daily mini-heart attack with honking horns of speeding traffic on all sides. But here in Shivpuri, despite a great increase in traffic over the years, I find myself able to re-charge and reflect deeply enough that the words stuck deep in my heart gain life.
I gather the sounds and sights of this White House in my mind, to get me through the moments back in Switzerland where stress may swell and surge. I take it all in: the patter of Cloey’s claws against the freezing tile flooring, the sound of Gayatri’s laughter as she takes refuge behind the heavy living room curtains (my baby is bringing curtain hide-and-seek I called “dakshalacing” as a toddler back, seriously) and so much more. I always tell my shrink back in Switzerland that the smell of chocolate brings me back here, probably because every trip the same brownie recipe coerces me back into Baker Rina mode, even when I’m not supposed to be eating them myself.
Nani may have been shocked by the appearance of Mr. Bhardwaj, the young leather pants and jacket-wearing architect, all those years ago. But his concept combined with her perseverance and sense of style is the reason these lime-stone walls are still standing over sixty years later. Our home and garden were built from vision and heart with innovation and creativity: I thank the toil of donkeys to bring in the red gravel I hold so dear, and feel that in a way these walls do talk. The impractical pit in the middle of the link’s floor may be long gone but even the teakwood flooring to replace it is from our very own factory. Old machinery from the mill has become sculptural garden décor rather than ended up as scrap metal and will long remain a testament to how far the White House has come. It’s hard to imagine that this house has seen times when television and Internet connectivity didn’t exist and today it has functional Netflix streaming abilities.
Our White House has been home to multiple generations and holds a lifetime of memories for my entire family. Over the last sixty years it has proved capable of changing with the times and yet retaining the warmth, security and heart at its very core. For me it is a nostalgic and sentimental place, but it is also strong, safe and enduring. The famous series ending line of my favorite show One Tree Hill goes: “There is only One Tree Hill and it is your home.” The way my favorite fictional characters thrive in their small town, I can safely say that there is only one Shivpuri White House and it is my home.